Nothing, and I mean nothing, compares with the peak of tomato season. Ruby, plum and canary-colored heirlooms rub elbows with the sweetest of beefsteak and cherry tomatoes. Mounds of piquant peppers, aromatic basil, and eggplants in all shapes and sizes rest alongside Mother Nature’s embarrassment of riches—all on offer at the farmers market. Eating locally in the summer and fall is easy and takes little to no effort. It also makes the passing of fall and the dwindling of the farmers market share that much harder to accept.
The coming of winter, however, does not mean we must give up our healthful habit of supporting local farmers and embracing the bounty of the Bluegrass. There are plenty of vegetables that wait for colder temperatures to have their moment in the sun. Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, beets, rutabagas, greens and squash—oh, the squash!—are here to mend our tomato-broken hearts, helping us find local love again and brightening our dreary days and snowy nights.
If you’ve driven through the countryside or visited a local farm, you’ve likely seen long white domes dotting the landscape. These hoop houses, also known as high tunnels, are warmed by the sun, creating the environment for a yearlong harvest. “There is minimal pest pressure as well,” says Maggie Keith, gardener and co-founder of Foxhollow Farm, a biodynamic farm community in Crestwood.
In addition to Bluegrass-raised beef and lamb, Foxhollow is home to a network of farmers who share their fertile landscape. Many of them continue to farm well into the winter months, supplying regional restaurants with fresh produce and continuing their sales to the local community at area winter farmers markets. Root vegetables tend to take center stage in the winter, their natural hardiness a perfect match for the harshness of the season. These robust, often craggy and dirty roots may not win any beauty contests when plucked straight from the ground, but when they are scrubbed and peeled, little can rival the richness of their color.
Such is the case with Maggie’s beet hummus. She was generous enough to share this vibrant dish with me when I was seeking a way to transform beets beyond the de rigueur salad. Maggie purées roasted beets with creamy cannellini beans and tahini, adding ample squeezes of lemon juice, garlic, red pepper flakes and olive oil for depth of flavor. The resulting dish is almost shocking in its fuchsia glory, the essence of the beet unmistakable in each and every bite. Served with carrots, broccoli and rainbow radish, this healthful starter will add brightness to any winter table.
A contrast of colors also can be found in shepherd’s pie, the traditional meat-and-potato dish hailing from Ireland and the United Kingdom. Locally raised pork, beef and lamb are readily available. The simplicity of shepherd’s pie, a cousin to the American casserole, is ripe for variation and welcomes nearly any veggie or ground meat. I chose ground lamb from Foxhollow as the base of my winter pie, sautéing it with sweet carrots, rich turnips and the leafy greens of Swiss chard. After pouring the lamb and veggie mixture into a baking dish, I spread bright orange mashed sweet potatoes over the top, a more colorful—and some would argue more flavorful—substitute for the everyday yellow potatoes typically used to top the pie. Ground pork, beef or even an abundance of diced winter vegetables would serve as an equally flavorful filling for this pie, with puréed squash another delicious and vibrant topping for the dish.
One hindrance to fully appreciating the winter’s bounty is a lack of creativity. When presented with Brussels sprouts, for example, our instinct most often leads us to a quick roast or boil. While there is nothing wrong with that, it does little to celebrate the varied flavor of these mini cabbages, which are quite delicious when left in their raw, natural state. When shredded thinly, Brussels sprouts make a fresh and crunchy base for a salad, the leaves exhibiting just a hint of bitterness that is refreshing when tossed with a bright vinaigrette, pungent blue cheese, sweet cranberries and crumbled walnuts. Consider Brussels sprouts when prepping your next coleslaw, forgoing the everyday cabbage for a mix of fresh, brilliant green leaves. Instead of marinara, sauce your pasta noodles with a purée of carrots, which makes for a lovely partner to local spicy pork sausage. Throw a dice of various veggies over top of a pizza before it hits the oven. And who says the stars of the winter harvest must be enjoyed only in savory form? Blend butternut squash purée into your next cake batter or morning serving of flapjacks.
The options are virtually endless and, when we think outside the box, shine an entirely new light on the graces of Mother Nature and our local farmers when it is easy to believe they have gone into hibernation. This is, in fact, far from the case, and it is important that we relish their efforts to bring us fresh food no matter how low the temperatures may fall. For aside from caring for the animals and the hoop houses, these farmers are preparing for the spring, investing in the winter for hopes of a successful busy season. Indeed, a farmer’s work is never done, which, given the spoils of vegetables to be found at your local winter market, is something for which we can all be grateful.
Berea Farmers Market, Saturday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m., bereafarmersmarket.org
Lexington Farmers Market, Saturday, 8 a.m.-1 p.m., lexingtonfarmersmarket.com
Marksbury Farm Market, Lancaster, Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m., marksburyfarm.com
The Original Bardstown Road Farmers Market, Saturday, 10 a.m.-noon, bardstownroadfarmersmarket.com
Rainbow Blossom Natural Food Markets, rainbowblossom.com
St. Matthews Winter Farmers Market, Saturday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. at Harvey Brown Presbyterian Church
The Reynolds Grocery Company, reynoldsgrocery.com
The Friendly Market, Florence, Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; thefriendlymkt.com
Trunnell’s Farm Market, Utica, Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., trunnellsfarmmarket.com
Community Farmers Market, Bowling Green, Saturday, 8 a.m.-1 p.m. and Tuesday, 2-6 p.m., communityfarmersmarketbg.com
Old Homeplace Farm offers online ordering for pick-up at locations throughout eastern Kentucky, oldhomeplacefarm.com